POLITICS
09/26/2013 02:40 pm ET

The Only Way To Show Leadership In A Debt Ceiling Crisis Is To Refuse To Negotiate On The Debt Ceiling

AP

The thing about the debt ceiling is that it's not in any way, shape, or form a "partisan" issue. There's no "position" to take on it. It is not a liberal or a conservative "idea." And raising the debt ceiling confers no privileges or advantages on anyone -- it doesn't advance any policy or philosophy, and it doesn't even permit new debt. Congress has passed laws and appropriated monies. Having done so, certain obligations must be met. Raising the debt ceiling says only, "We plan on honoring our obligations." Not raising the debt ceiling means you are saying, "We would like to cause the collapse of what is colloquially known as 'the economy.'"

You signed a lease. You promised to pay rent. Maybe you don't like your rent increase. Maybe it wrecks your carefully calculated budget. Know what? You have options. Move if you want. Zero out another budget item to secure the money. Do whatever you like. Regardless, on the first of the month, you pay what you owe, or you may be forcibly evicted.

The debt ceiling works the same way. If you're concerned by how high it's getting, there is nothing but ample opportunity to have debates, make cuts, raise revenue, and right the budget. If the vote doesn't go your way, you go out on the campaign trail and you make your case to the electorate. Next time, the vote maybe goes your way. But on the appointed date, you raise the debt ceiling.

A lot of people these days are suggesting that it's natural to make big budget deals when the debt ceiling needs to be raised. This is what we call "erroneous." Here's Jonathan Chait, enumerating the two central errors:

Error No. 1: As Richard Kogan points out, since the Reagan administration began, Congress has raised the debt ceiling 45 times. Only seven of those times were attached to significant budget legislation. Basically, when Congress does a budget deal, it usually attaches a debt-ceiling hike onto it. But it doesn’t make the debt-ceiling hike contingent on the deal.

Error No. 2: Boehner is not proposing a “deal,” as in a deal involving the swapping of concessions. Indeed, all the previous agreements he cites involved the two sides making mutually agreeable policy bargains. None of them, save the 2011 debt-ceiling ransom, involved Congress threatening debt default in order to extract concessions. Boehner isn’t looking for a deal, except in the sense that Richie Aprile was looking for a deal with Beansie to share the profits from his restaurant.

On Thursday, Chait sized up the House GOP's "offer" on the debt ceiling. It boils down to: Implement the economic policies that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan ran on, or else you get default. You may remember Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan from their past masterworks, which include "Losing The 2012 Election."

It's impossible to take this seriously. And not just in the sense that it's unreasonable to expect the winners of a presidential election to implement the policies they opposed on the way to that win. There's a second level of pure, mountain-grown unseriousness that Josh Barro points out, having examined this same offer: the GOP's demands -- which include blocking net neutrality regs and building the Keystone pipeline -- "have little or no connection to the federal debt."

This is just a list of things Republicans would like to do if they ran the government. But they don't run the government. Instead, they are contending that it is a valid legislative strategy to use the leverage of the debt ceiling—which will cause an economic crisis if it is not increased—to demand their way on any unrelated issue.

The pretense that debt limit fights are about the public debt is over.

Well, I wish that this was the case, but unfortunately, the odd notion that the occasion of raising the debt ceiling is an appropriate time to extract unreasonable demands has been normalized. It's now baked into the Beltway Conventional Wisdom. And along with that comes the odd notion that navigating nihilist demands -- not simply rejecting them -- is the new way that a president shows leadership.

Right now, if the House GOP demanded that John Boehner be allowed to amputate Barack Obama's legs with a rusty band saw in exchange for a debt ceiling hike, the Beltway commentariat would light up with talk about how irresponsible it would be for Obama to not, at the very least, consider it. Maybe just one and a half legs. It would be a big "win" for the White House to be left with half a gangrenous stump.

So instead of this moment of clarity that Barro rightly suggests should happen, here's what's going to take place. The Beltway Conventional Wisdom mavens are going to go on the offensive, and castigate the administration for its current, correct, position on the debt ceiling, which is: "There will be no negotiations on the debt ceiling." Obama's failure to properly offer some ransom to economic terrorists will be met with scorn.

And here's a simple truth about all of this: Obama does, definitely, share in the blame. As Matt Yglesias points out:

The absolute worst mistake Obama has made as president came back in 2011 when Republicans first pulled this stunt. At that time, Obama desperately wanted a bargain over long-term fiscal policy. So he tried a bit of too-clever-by-half political jujitsu in which GOP debt ceiling hostage taking became a pretext to start negotiations over long-term budgeting. All manner of evils have fallen forth from that fateful decisions, including an economic weak patch in 2011 the ongoing mess of sequestration, and worst of all the setting of a precedent for future crises.

"A terrible monster was let out of the box in 2011," says Yglesias, "and the best thing Obama can possibly do for the country at this point is to stuff it back in and hopefully kill it."

I've long wondered why, exactly, Obama decided to allow this monster to escape from the box. Part of it may have to do with his own history on debt ceiling votes. See, in the past, presidents have always gotten a clean debt ceiling hike from Congress, but it was traditional for the opposition party to allow a few of its members to rail at the president for his policies and cast votes against it. Not so many votes that it threatened the eventual outcome, just enough to make a point. And during George W. Bush's presidency, then-Sen. Obama was one of the people to vote against raising the debt ceiling.

So some small part of his desire to engage in deal-making may stem from his need to be internally consistent. But it's pretty clear that he's been largely motivated by a desire to satisfy the Beltway Conventional Wisdom mavens, show "leadership" on the issue, and achieve a big, shiny Grand Bargain on the long-term budget trajectory.

But Obama made two miscalculations. First, he made the mistake of presuming that the GOP would be willing to bargain, to literally exchange concessions. Second, he made the mistake of assuming that once it became clear that a bargain wasn't possible, the party refusing to bargain would be held accountable.

Fortunately, this is one mistake that the White House has not seemed willing to repeat, and its current "no negotiations" stance is correct. And as Greg Sargent points out, refusing to negotiate doesn't diminish Obama's opposition at all:

Democrats are not asking Republicans to give up anything in requesting that they support a debt limit hike. They are not asking Republicans to agree to more spending. They are not asking for new taxes. They are simply asking Republicans to join them in making it possible for Congress to pay obligations it has already incurred, and in so doing, avert economic catastrophe for the whole country. There is no rationale for giving Republicans anything in return for this.

Indeed, this is true. If Republicans do the responsible thing, and offer a clean debt ceiling hike, they will have conceded nothing. They will still be free to block spending, deny revenue increases, stage debates on their preferred policies, enter into bargains, and use the traditional campaign cycle to make the case for whatever the legislative process denies them. There is simply no reason to use the occasion of the debt ceiling to force anyone's hand with the threat of a default apocalypse. (In fact, the willingness to act responsibly when the occasion demands and put the country first only strengthens one's bargaining position.)

The truth is that by taking this "no negotiations" stance, Obama is doing the GOP a great service. See, it is an inevitability that one day, there will be a Republican president. It is similarly inevitable that this future Republican president will have to seek a debt ceiling rise from a legislature in which the Democrats have sufficient potency to stage a hostage crisis. I truly want to believe that "making government work" is so central to the Democratic Party's "brand" that it would never consider these same apocalyptic posturings. But in my experience, these parliamentary battles, when left unchecked, tend only to escalate. And the roots of vengeance run deep.

It is up to Obama to break this cycle of violence (and this is perhaps fitting, since he played such a major role in unleashing it in the first place). Remember, the debt ceiling is not a partisan issue. Anyone who tells you there is a "liberal" or "conservative" position on the debt ceiling is a grand fool. It is not "liberal" to raise the debt ceiling, nor is it "conservative" to not raise the debt ceiling. Raising it is simply a necessity -- a necessity that does not negate either side's ability to debate budget levels or priorities. The refusal to raise it is simple nihilism.

By holding this line, Obama is truly engaging in an act of bipartisanship. He puts the monster back in the box. He preserves basic institutional governance for both parties. He protects future presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike, from having to face the constant threat of economic apocalypse. The media will pillory him for holding firm on this. All of the old arguments, that Obama is "failing to lead," will gain new currency.

But it was according those arguments some validity that got us into the mess in the first place. So hold firm he must, because it is the one and only way a president can "lead" on this issue.

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